The conflicts and competition in the history of Barcelona’s water supply

Barcelona’s temperatures are increasing and the hottest periods are becoming more frequent, whilst rainfall in the city is become increasingly less regular. In 2008, Barcelona almost ran out of water and had to resort to importing water in vast quantities. In order to avoid another water emergency, the city needs to adapt. Much of the city’s water system is dated and dysfunctional, with reports of faulty systems loosing up to 800,000 litres a day.  

Problems in Barcelona’s water supply are not new; the history of the supply has been ridden with competition and conflict, with the city’s intermittent population and urban growth since the late 19th century having triggered multiple struggles over water supply and water rights in the city.  

In the late 19th century, Barcelona’s rapid urban expansion beyond its medieval walls and industrial growth required an increase in the city’s water supply for both domestic and industrial use. Before this point, most of the city’s water came from the mine of Montcada, a local source, via an aqueduct. However, the urban expansion covered this and a new water supply from the Besòs River was secured under the management of the private company Sociedad General de Aguas de Barcelona (SAGB). The period of between the late 19th century and the beginning of the Spanish Civil War (1936-39) was characterised by the struggle between private and public interests in the ownership and management of water, debating whether water should be seen as a public resource to be equitably distributed, or whether it was a private good, owned and sold according to market rules.  

Map of the rivers of Catalonia. Source: Calameo. Annotations by author.

Over the 1940s and 1950s there were significant improvements in the city’s infrastructure, doubling the number of customers connected to the water network. To secure the city’s water supply, the 1957 Water Plan for Catalonia proposed the Ter River as a new source for the city, which was successfully achieved, despite the opposition to the plan, in 1966. Once again, the rapid growth in the city’s population and economy in the 1960s led to issues in the supply, leading to the proposal of the Ebro River, 200km south of Barcelona, as a new source for the city. However, this was dismissed due to opposition from the regions around the Ebro and the economic recession of the 1970s-80s.  

Between the 1980s and the turn of the century, the population of Barcelona remained relatively stable at around 4.2 million, although there was a significant spatial redistribution towards the outer periphery of the city. Despite the stable population, the change in lifestyle of much of the population, to low-density single homes with gardens and swimming pools, increased water demand in the city once again, with the city declaring five drought warnings between 1990 and 2005, restricting water use.

Metropolitan Region of Barcelona. Source: Masjuan et al., 2008.

In Barcelona’s most recent water crisis of 2008, the city almost ran out of water, with reservoir levels dropping to 18% – at 15% the water in the reservoirs would no longer be drinkable. The city implemented hosepipe bans, drained public fountains and urged residents to conserve water. The city council proposed two solutions: importing water internationally from Marseilles, and domestically from Tarragona, a port city to the south of Barcelona; or building an emergency pipeline to transfer water from the Ebro River to Barcelona. Both plans were met with hostility, and just as the shipments of water began to arrive at the city, Barcelona’s water situation began to improve with heavy rainfall increasing reservoir levels to 30% – still below average, but safe enough to scrap the plan for the emergency pipeline.  

The importing of water into cities is not rare, but has happened across Spain and many other countries around the world, leading to the outbreak of “water wars” as different regions scrabble for extra supplies.  

Water is one of the most essential resources cities need in order to function. The conflicts, inconsistencies and competition around the city’s water supply are not unique to Barcelona, but demonstrate capitalism’s inability to organise fundamental resources, and similar issues can be seen in the water supplies of countless cities around the world.  

2 thoughts on “The conflicts and competition in the history of Barcelona’s water supply

  1. Hi!
    Thank for this very thorough entry !
    I am so happy you brought up the question whether water should be considered as a public or private good. This is such an important issue, especially in the so-called ‘developing’ countries such as Senegal on which I talked about through my blog. This is mind-blowing to know that people all around the world are lacking drinking water when you come from a country such as the UK (or France for me) where water is taken for granted and largely affordable. Despite the recognition of water access as a right by the UN, many people still drink dirty water or need to spend a lot of money in it, more than we do in the UK and with less financial resources. Not only water supply has impacts on human health but also on social and gender equity (since girls and women mostly bear the burden to collect water where it is necessary) which make it such a crucial challenge to resolve.
    It is quiet astonishing to learn about water issues in such a big and rich city as Barcelona. Not only we can see that despite our technical achievements many water systems are faulty and poorly maintained, but also that our capitalistic and consumerist society is incapable to meet everyone’s needs while enhancing individual selfishness. Without efficient regulations about water distribution, this can only leads to situations like the one’s of Barcelona where water became scarce because of healthier people’s way of life.. Yes institutions need to think this through by comprehensively taking into account all socioeconomic and environmental interdependencies but cannot all privileged individuals reflect on other’s adversity and act with solidarity and compassion and thus share resources more equitably? I know how naive I sound but this would be such an effective solution to many problems that I really do not understand why people are not willing to make efforts. Like not having a swimming-pool when you have the sea nearby?


  2. Another interesting post! Something which I looked at in Hong Kong was the way in which water supply systems are intertwined with the negotiation of political power over cities. In Hong Kong that struggle is evident in the changing landscape of cross-border water supply from mainland China, which has increasingly used Hong Kong’s water dependence to exert political power over the Special Administrative Region. In Barcelona I wonder how water security issues may help or hinder Catalonia’s well known struggle for independence from Spain. It seems that, just as in Hong Kong, the Catalan government may struggle to advocate for independence when the central Spanish government retains some leverage over the region’s access to water supplies e.g. through curtailing access to the Ebro River which flows through other regions of the country.


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